Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. While it’s true that all year I look forward to eating turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie, I love most what the holiday stands for. It is a day of gratitude, shared by Americans of all faiths and persuasions, that we set aside to spend with our families. As we reunite with our loved ones, we focus on what really matters and appreciate all that we have. The holiday has special significance for me as a plaintiff-side employment lawyer. One of my primary focuses is on family leave, and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about how we can encourage and protect caregiving by workers, male and female. After all, what’s more important than family? So this year I am extra thankful: our paid family leave program is being expanded to allow workers to care for more family members.
Workers today face significant barriers when trying to take family leave, particularly those who are already struggling to make ends meet. Around three quarters of Americans live from paycheck-to-paycheck, with little in the way of savings, and 68% of Americans would find it difficult if their paychecks were delayed by even a week. It is no surprise, then, that a 2012 Department of Labor survey found that of those who reported that they needed family and medical leave but did not take it, 46% stated that inability to afford leave was the reason they did not take it. Of those who did take leave, nearly half cut their leave short because they could not afford more time off. Paid family leave is therefore critical as a safety net for workers to take the time they need to bond with their babies and to care for their relatives.
Since 2004, California has offered a Paid Family Leave (PFL) program that provides up to six weeks of paid benefits for workers to take time off to bond with a new child or care for seriously ill family members. It is fully funded by employees, and all employees who pay into the State Disability Insurance Fund are covered. However, until recently, its scope was limited to leave to care for a parent, child, spouse, or domestic partner, or to bond with a new child.
Earlier this year, Governor Brown signed SB 770 (Jackson) to expand PFL coverage to employees who take leave to care for seriously ill grandchildren, grandparents, siblings, or parents-in-law. By expanding PFL’s scope, we take into account changing demographics and allow more workers to provide care for family members in need. According to research cited by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, author of SB 770, California has the second-highest percentage of multi-generational households in the country, and the EDD rejected about 10% of PFL claims because the employee sought leave to care for a family member not previously covered.
We as a society only stand to gain from family members being able to provide each other with quality care. Research has shown that the effect on workers and their families has been overwhelmingly positive. For example, with respect to new parents, research found that 91% of those who used PFL said it had a positive effect on their ability to care for their new child, that fathers who used PFL took a leave twice as long as men who didn’t use PFL, and that PFL doubles the duration of breastfeeding for new moms who used it. Employers, too, have reason to celebrate the expansion of PFL as the vast majority of surveyed employers responded that PFL had either a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect” on business productivity (89%), profitability/performance (91%), turnover (96%), and employee morale (99%).
For next year, let’s aspire to expand paid family leave further, to cover more working Americans inside and outside of California. Within the next few weeks, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (CT) will introduce the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (“FAMILY Act”), which would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of paid family leave at up to 66% of their earned wages. Within California, we can also help more workers take family leave by expanding PFL to cover public employees and by giving job protection to those who take PFL. By strengthening our paid family leave programs, the ability to take time to care for family members and bond with children will be within reach for so many more workers throughout the country.
This Thanksgiving, celebrate your time with family. Be grateful for the love and health you all have, and take comfort that if they need you, they can count on you to be there for them.